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In December 2008, Gene Chizik wasn't viewed as Auburn's former defensive coordinator returning to the Plains to succeed Tommy Tuberville as head coach.

He was that guy who got drubbed at Iowa State.

Chizik, who directed the defense during Auburn's 13-0 season in 2004, has the Tigers back among the national elite late in his second year with a 10-0 record and a No. 2 ranking. Should Auburn top visiting Georgia on Saturday, Chizik would counter his 5-19 record with the Cyclones in 2007-08 with a 19-5 record with the Tigers.

"We didn't really set our goals in terms of numbers of wins and losses necessarily," Chizik said. "We set our goals on how we wanted to get this program back to where it's been in the past, which is competing for championships. That's what we wanted to do without pinning a number of wins to it. We obviously want to be able to be in a position every year to compete for a championship, and I can't say we're ahead of schedule or behind schedule.

"I think we've done everything the right way here. I think we've recruited right. I think we've set a foundation right. I think we've done all the things we felt like were important to be able to compete down the road, and that's more of what we were looking for."

That foundation has come under national scrutiny the last several days as the NCAA investigates the recruitment of starting quarterback Cam Newton. ESPN reported this week that Newton called a recruiter at Mississippi State last winter and told him that his father wanted him to attend Auburn because "the money was too much."

Chizik and athletic director Jay Jacobs have stated that Auburn has been aware of the allegations involving Newton for several months and that the school is cooperating with the NCAA.

This isn't the first time Jacobs has put his trust in Chizik.

After Tuberville resigned following a decadelong run that included an 85-40 record but a 5-7 finale, Jacobs made a hire that was roundly mocked. Chizik had gone 2-10 in his second season at ISU and 0-8 in the Big 12.

When Jacobs returned to the Auburn airport after visiting with Chizik, he was heckled by a fan who shouted, "Boo! We want a leader, not a loser! Boo! Not Chizik. 5-19! 5-19!" The scene was caught on camera and has been witnessed more than 700,000 times on Youtube.

The Birmingham News asked Auburn fans at the time of the hiring how many approved, and 15.1 percent did. When the paper posed the same question last December, 80.3 percent approved, and that was before the Tigers won the Outback Bowl to begin their current 11-game win streak.

"We came in and we set down a path of where we wanted to go, and we've literally been consistently walking down that path," Chizik said. "It's really that simple. I don't really have the energy to pay a lot of attention to any outside distractions."

Said Jacobs: "This has never been about vindication. This was always about finding the best football coach for Auburn."

Chizik is the latest in a line of league coaches who has experienced significant success in his second season. Nick Saban had drastically better teams his second years at LSU and Alabama, and Georgia's Mark Richt ended his program's 20-year SEC title drought in year two.

Auburn's rise has been the most stunning, considering the Tigers were 2-6 in league play in '08 and lost their offensive coordinator midway through that year, but Richt isn't surprised. Richt said every SEC school can find 22 good starters and that the biggest key is winning the close ones.

Georgia won five games by seven points or less in 2002, and Auburn has three wins by a field goal this season and two by basically a touchdown.

"There is no question Gene is doing a great job, and he has outstanding assistant coaches," Richt said. "Once guys start buying in, you get some momentum early. Early on they played Clemson and they are down 17-0, and that could have been a really tough setback early in the year, but they find a way to come back and win it in overtime and start believing. That's how these seasons happen."

Chizik has a 78.3-percent win clip at Auburn, which puts him ahead of every Tigers coach since D.M. Balliet went 1-0 in 1893. Yet even if Auburn comes away unscathed from the NCAA investigation, Chizik will be challenged to keep his program riding high.

The Tigers have six senior starters on each side of the ball and could lose their top juniors, Newton and defensive tackle Nick Fairley, to the NFL. An even bigger concern may be offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, who is a month away from being one of the nation's hottest commodities for head-coaching vacancies.

"I don't think there is any question that when you hire great assistants, they're going to be talked about," Chizik said. "I want the best for our guys. I definitely have a great staff, and whoever comes up being sought after, we're certainly going to do everything we can to help provide what we think is the right situation."

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